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Guest Posts, Leadership and Activism, Learning at its Best, Philosophical Meanderings

My Vision for Urban Education (Guest Post by Mark Naison)

I am extremely critical of current trends in education policy which involve deluging schools with standardized tests and rating teachers, administrators and whole institutions based on test result. Such policies result in school disengagement on the part of students, destroy teacher morale, and magnify health problems in poor and working class communities by crowding out exercise and the arts.

Given my criticism of existing policies, skeptics have a right to ask-“What do you want to see urban schools doing that they are not doing now.” So let me take the time to lay out my own vision of what kind of things urban schools should be doing that will promote student engagement, parent involvement, teacher excitement, and transform schools into centers of community empowerment

Portions of what I am talking about are already being done by schools all over the country. I invite you to see what Professor Henry Taylor and his colleagues are doing to embed schools on the East Side of Buffalo into a larger program of community development; to visit Urban Academy on the East Side of Manhattan, an innovative multiracial high school that is project based rather than test based, and PS 140 in the South Bronx a school which has developed a museum devoted to community history; but it would be difficult to broadly implement what I recommend unless Federal and state educational policies give schools far more freedom to experiment, and reverse the current emphasis on high stakes testing.

Basically, I would like to see urban schools emphasize community involvement, artistic expression, and physical and emotional health on the part of their students. We have to end the pretense that poverty- reflected in homelessness and housing overcrowding, poor nutrition, high levels of violence and stress- are not factors shaping students academic engagement and performance. Schools should be places where young people know they are going to be fed, nurtured, protected, loved and have their confidence built up in many spheres of life and where parents and community members can go to discuss and solve broader community problems.

This means in the first instant, that schools be open from the crack of dawn till 9 or ten in the evening and open to community groups for public meetings, as well as for concerts, festivals and recreational activities.

But it also means that we should emphasize activities now deemed “expendable” in test driven . To that end, I would like the following.

  1. That at least an hour of every school day be devoted to recreation and physical activity, whether it be recess, physical education classes or school sports.
  2. That at least an hour of every school day be devoted to the arts, be it music, theater, visual arts, poetry and creative writing.
  3. That urban agriculture and health education be made an integral part of schools curricula, fueling hands on science instruction, and promoting the development of the production of fresh food in communities which are food deserts. If it were up to me, every urban school would have it’s own indoor and outdoor gardens which grow food,
  4. That a portion of social studies curriculum should involve an analysis of community history and an in depth look at community issues, and give students credit for internships with community organizations or involvement in community development projects
  5. That every school should be open 3-6 PM for supervised activity which includes all of the above elements, as well as quiet study time for students who don’t have tat at home.

Think of what life would be like in working class communities if schools were organized this way. Young people would eat better, be healthier, have lower levels of stress, and develop their talents in ways which build up their self-confidence and promote community solidarity and economic development. They would also dramatically lower school drop out rates, reduce violence, and, over time, improve cognitive and analytical skills often neglected by the kind of rote learning and test prep taking place now.

Instead of policing, constricting, and testing young people into submission, we need to unleash their creativity and imaginations and tap their idealism to improve life for everyone around them

Doesn’t this sound better than current policies, which result in turning schools into zones of fear and stress for all concerned


Mark Naison is a Professor of African-American Studies and History at Fordham University and Director of Fordham’s Urban Studies Program. He is the author of three books and over 100 articles on African-American History, urban history, and the history of sports. His most recent book White Boy: A Memoir, published in the Spring of 2002, was reviewed in the New York Times, the Nation and the Chronicle of Higher Education and was the subject of feature stories on Black Entertainment Television, New York One News and the Tavis Smiley show on National Public Radio. One of his most popular courses at Fordham, “From Rock and Roll to Hip Hop: Urban Youth Cultures in Post War America” has also received media attention, becoming the subject of stories on National Public Radio, Bronx Net, and WFUV. His most recent course, “Feeling the Funk: Research Seminar on Music of the African Diaspora” focuses on Latin and Caribbean traditions on American Popular Music.

Post originally published here

Mark Naison’s previous Cooperative Catalyst post Why President Obama Must Remove Arne Duncan As Secretary of Education if He Hopes to Win Re-Election



9 thoughts on “My Vision for Urban Education (Guest Post by Mark Naison)

  1. Seemingly, you predicate your archetypal vision of schools, urban schools, upon the very foundational attributes of what has been the experience and structure of many those same schools for years, or in years past. Clearly, a conflation of like situation. Or is it merely redundancy? The various activities you state you would like to see happen (and, as you point out, are happening at some sites), in fact, have been a part of public education in most instances. That is, while I agree that these programs have been eliminated or are under extreme attack by corporate driven education policy, they were basic to public schools at one time in the not so distant past.

    I spent many years teaching in the urban, Title I, centers of poverty. I repeat, while there have always been disparity between suburban, middle class schools and urban schools, your ideation of these programs are not new to public education, even in the urban setting.

    In your opening paragraph, you mention the malaise of the new testing, testing, and outcome-based models. That they bring a paucity of opportunity for students, teachers, administrators. I agree. However, your envisage of these programs must require precursors to be implemented (to re-invent themselves) in a significant way. To get parent, community participation, you have put the cart before the proverbial horse. That is, there must happen a sea change in spending priorities in America. In order to reach this admirable vision you lay out, a re-development of communities must first be actualized.

    If state and local budgets, or if those entities’ lawmakers are unwilling to propose a complete reconstitution of our urban communities which include not just the working class and poor, but the middle class as well, bringing a complete renewal, then it must be brought by federal law. If the politics of educational policy is so corrupted that the federal government is seemingly going in the opposite direction with the cataclysm of misguided testing and meritocratic evaluations, then it is up to the people to protest and push back with great prejudice. Elimination of poverty is the thoroughfare to those estimable goals you propose.

    Posted by kuhiokane | July 21, 2012, 6:16 pm
    • These policies certainly weren’t part of the school I worked at in Brooklyn. The kids I worked with in Brooklyn were fed poorly (Even by the school! School lunches were awful quality.), got very little exercise outside of school, and knew almost no history of their communities.

      I think you could start to rebuild communities through schools, particularly if you made them the hub where people went to get services. Pedro Noguera described a community school like this in a lecture of his, and it was interesting to hear his description of what the accountability people thought when they visited the school. They missed everything that he thought was important about the school model.

      Posted by David Wees | July 22, 2012, 10:34 am
      • Yes, Pedro Noguera’s ideas were missed by the accountability people. I agree that schools should be a hub of community involvement, where services can be made available. My wife is currently a special ed teacher at a Title I school where there has been such involvement. However, with the extra burden of testing costs and PD to train for CCS (sic) S implementation, let alone dealing with a new evaluation rubric (Danielson), her site has only been able to provide for a full time nurse (thankfully, as most schools do not have one). While the area served has a good medical clinic nearby, clinicians do not come to the school site, and a fully operating hospital is over twenty miles away. Other services were cut. The school had dentists visits weekly, outreach support for needy students, etc, now all cut.

        Making schools hubs seem problematic given current local, state public school budget cuts and attacks by corporate interests which are pulling even more dollars away from the community public schools as they franchise public /private, taxpayer funded charter schools. Fortunately, a boys and girls center was built by funding from the NFL and is sited adjacent to my wife’s school. This has been a boon for the community. I would hope that there are more such programs being developed by the NFL.

        While there is a reduced / free breakfast and lunch program, school bus passes now cost $270 a yr. K-5 must live one and a half miles or more from their attendant school. Sixth through 12th grade must live five miles or more from school site to receive school bus service. While there are specific accommodations for special ed, foster care, homeless (left wherever the student designates–most likely a beach here in Hawaii), free lunch students, distance from attendant school still applies (except special ed. students). Other social services have been eliminated, necessitating parents to travel fifteen to 30 miles to receive those services.

        To incorporate services as described by Professor Naison into the umbrella of the public school site is admirable, and a great way to go. I agree with the concept. What I find is a lack of support in the State House of Hawaii to provide the money necessary to make site improvements and the building additions it would take to bring, or even bring back community services to public schools in the most beneficial, feasible way.

        Posted by kuhiokane | July 22, 2012, 8:54 pm
        • Yeah, I agree, we can have all the good ideas we want, but if they aren’t funded, then they won’t work. There is definitely a “me first” attitude being pushed by many of the various levels of the US government.

          Posted by David Wees | July 23, 2012, 4:55 pm
  2. The sooner policy makers realise the fundamental truth of what you are saying the sooner we can move on as educators and make it happen. I would add two things – that your comments are appropriate for all schools not just those in challenging circumstances and that critical thinking/philosophy finds its way into the curriculum also. Excellent blog.

    Posted by James tucker | July 22, 2012, 3:14 pm
  3. Very good ideas but I must add they can be updated even more – higher student intrinsic motivation and much more effective learning. Bring all these ideas within a PBL pedagogy with well developed defining questions.

    Of course, if you really want to shake things up, may I refer you to a posting to this Cooperative Catalyst of just a few days ago: Redefining Public Education.

    I totally agree with the community involvement and have written about what I’ve been calling local Education Communities.

    Oh, by the way, I’ve never seen policy to the contrary. Facilitate effective learning and ignor the standardized test!!! Having learned effectively, they will do well on the stupid tests! The only fight you’ll have, should you choose to accept it, will be for the credit associated with the improved test scores.

    Posted by jcbjr9455 | July 22, 2012, 3:21 pm


  1. Pingback: My Vision for Urban Education (Guest Post by Mark Naison) | Middle School Language Arts | - July 21, 2012

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